He Will Be Called: Everlasting Father

This will be our second Christmas without my father. Hopefully, this one will be easier than last year. My father was a good man, and a good father, but he wasn’t perfect. And while his soul is everlasting (Praise God, I know my dad is in heaven!), his presence with me was not.

As the nation of Judah trudged into Babylonian captivity, many had lost their fathers, grandfathers, husbands, and sons to the war in which Judah was defeated. Perhaps some of the survivors barely had time to bury their loved ones, much less mourn, before the forced march began. Isaiah’s prophecy promised a time when they would no longer fight, when “every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5). But in the moment, they knew the sorrow of great loss.

Did their hearts sting when they remembered the prophecy? Continue reading

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The Gross Inequality of Generosity

Now we come to what may be the most difficult passage on generosity in the Bible. So difficult, in fact, that the Holy Spirit didn’t remind me of it or highlight it back in January when I took up this year-long study. I don’t think I could have handled it then. A few days ago, while reading the Sermon on the Mount, I tried to breeze through another of Jesus’ “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…” sections. But the Spirit stopped me in my tracks.

“This is about generosity!” my heart screamed.

“Oh no,” my mind replied. What do you think?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Matthew 5:38-41

Is there any way this passage isn’t about generosity? Because I don’t like it. My fleshly side is pushing back hard.

We consider
vengeance
a right.

We call it justice, but what we really want when we’re wronged is revenge. We consider vengeance a right, along with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“Eye for an eye,” we say, thinking our biblical reference justifies our anger.

“But I tell you…” Jesus says, freezing us in our tracks. In this passage, He gives three examples of generosity toward an antagonist. An antagonist. That means our opponents, our bullies, our enemies.

Turn the Other Cheek

The image here is that kind of slap such as in the Victorian era, when a man might slap another man with his gloves. It’s talking about insults.

If someone insults you, don’t try to block him/her from doing it again. Allow a second insult without retaliation. What about a third? Or a fourth? Even though we only have two cheeks, I think Jesus would say “yes.” The insults may smart, like the gloves to the face, but they don’t cause permanent injury. We forgive.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22

Can I experience repeated insult without retaliation? Can I be generous with my forgiveness and endurance?  This kind of attitude demands extreme humility and equally extreme confidence in one’s identity in Christ such that I don’t have to defend myself or my honor.

Give Him the Shirt Off Your Back

Jewish law prohibited a lender from taking someone’s coat as collateral, even for a short-term loan (NIV Study Bible notes on Matthew 5:40). But they could take the shirt beneath the coat. Jesus said, instead of arguing, give the coat along with the shirt.

Jesus calls us to give
back more than is due.

The contemporary response to being sued is to counter-sue, or before you call in the lawyers, to accuse those who accuse us. Instead, Jesus calls us go beyond dropping the complaint–to give more than is demanded, to make reparations beyond equality, even to the point of personal sacrifice. He calls us to keep peace even if it brings us shame, like walking around shirtless and coatless would shame us.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  –Romans 12:18

Can I be generous with peace-keeping? I’ll need to prioritize peace over my personal needs and even my rights.

Go the Extra Mile

Roman soldiers could force bystanders into service for short periods of time. (Think of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32). I don’t know how far they could legally force a person to carry their equipment, but imagine someone continuing to walk beside the soldier beyond the legal limit. Imagine the opportunities to talk about one’s faith in that second mile!

Jesus calls us beyond
equality to generosity.

Maybe your boss makes you work late. Maybe your neighbor keeps you out at the mailbox to talk about her problems for half an hour. Maybe your brother buys you a cheap Christmas gift every year. There are many situations in which Jesus pulls us down that second mile, beyond equality to generosity. In those moments, we have incredible freedom to talk about Him.

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
    if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
    and the Lord will reward you.  –Proverbs 25:21-22

Can I be generous (with time, money, or effort) in excess? I’ll need to stop keeping score.

Jesus did it, just like Isaiah said He would.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. Isaiah 53:7

He didn’t open his mouth. He didn’t retaliate. He didn’t accuse. He didn’t return injury for insults. He “went the extra mile” when He prayed for His executioners (Luke 23:34).

Generosity doesn’t discriminate. The bullies, the adversaries, the enemies…they all need to see Jesus in us, too. This is a high, high calling. Honestly, I’m sitting back in my chair right now trying to grasp how my life is going to change with obedience in this area.

Nobody said generosity was going to reflect equality or personal rights and privileges. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. A tough take on Jesus’ idea of generosity, because now more than ever, my #generosity is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

What about you? Does this passage challenge your idea of generosity? What do you find difficult to swallow here? I’d appreciate your response in the comments below, and I always respond.

Authentic Generosity Springs from Humility

We get so we can give.

Why does God give us things (tangible and intangible)? First, because it’s in His nature. God is generous. But second, we get so we can give.

From my car to my children to the love I show my neighbor, everything I have is, in a sense, on loan from God and on its way to someone or somewhere else. I am the conduit of His blessing for others. The things He gives me are mine for the time it takes them to pass through my hands, through my circle of influence. Like an earthen ditch flowing full of water, some of God’s blessing soaks into the earth over which they pass, and so I am blessed as all these things pass through me.

That last paragraph is where I want my mindset to remain. I’m not often there, which is why I write this month about the connection between humility and generosity. Continue reading

I Am Not the Light of the World

Of Candles

12-30 2014 reflections (9)
candles (c) Carole Sparks

The electricity was out. No TV, no internet, not to mention no heat or means of cooking. I decided to read a book, so I lit a candle. Have you ever tried to read by the light of one candle? It’s almost impossible. By the time you get the book close enough to see the words clearly, you’re afraid the pages will catch fire. One candle, despite the beautiful imagery, is not very effective. Continue reading

Two Nazarites Walked into a Juice Bar

Two Nazarites walked into a juice bar. (It was a juice bar because, being Nazarites, they don’t drink alcohol.) Both were the long-desired offspring of barren couples, both dedicated entirely to God before they were born, and both destined to die at the hands of oppressors (though the reasons for their death were very different).

They are the only two Nazarites most of us could name, one from the Old Testament and one from the New: Samson and John the Baptist. (You get extra credit if you know that Samuel was also a Nazarite. See 1 Samuel 1:11. I didn’t know it until I read the study notes in my Bible today.) Let’s stand these two side by side and see what we can learn.

Birth: Barrenness, Angels, and Life-Long Dedication

Both men were set apart for
God from before conception.

Manoah’s wife (we don’t get her name) was barren when “the angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son’” (Judges 13:3). Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, was also barren when an angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple and said, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John” (Luke 1:13). On both occasions, the angel went on to explain that the boy would be set apart for service to the Lord. In Samson’s case, it was explicitly as a Nazarite (Judges 13:5). In John’s case, we infer from the text, which says he would never drink alcohol and he would be “filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born” (Luke 1:15).

Not clear on what a Nazarite is? Check Numbers 6 and/or skip down to the first comment below, where I’ve summarized it.

Life: Wilderness, Honey, and Owning One’s Identity

Both Samson and John the Baptist grew up to be “the outdoorsy type.” After killing a lion, Samson knew how to find the exact spot later (Judges 14:5-9). He was also able to catch 300 wild foxes—no easy task (Judges 15:3-5). John lived in the wilderness when “the word of God came to him” (Luke 3:2), and he stayed there to do his preaching (Matthew 3:1, 5). Both men liked wild honey, but only Samson took his from a dead animal (Judges 14:8-9, Matthew 3:4).

From the beginning, Samson disregarded his Nazarite identity. While he enjoyed supernatural strength from God (despite his bad behavior), he never guarded his vows and frequently touched dead things (e.g. Judges 14:6, 19; 15:14-15; 16:3). Judges doesn’t say, but I bet he drank alcohol at some of those parties, too. Throughout his life, Samson never pointed people to God. John, on the other hand, embraced his Nazarite identity. The gospels aren’t explicit, but one gets the impression that John’s wilderness roamings, his hermit-like tendencies, and even his camel hair clothes (Matthew 3:4), reflected his effort to uphold the vows he never asked to take. John’s whole adult life centered on pointing people to Jesus (John 1:26-34).

Death: Oppressors, Lust, and Leaving a Legacy

Both men died
because of lust.

Lust led to the death of both Samson and John, and both died at the hands of oppressors. But they left very different legacies.

Samson’s desire for Delilah—a woman to whom he wasn’t married—clouded his judgement. After much nagging (Yes, the Scriptures use that word!), he told her the secret of his strength. She shaved his head, and the Philistines captured him, plucking out his eyes before they put him to work in prison (Judges 16:4-21). At a big party, the Philistines put the blind, weak Samson on display. The Bible says, “He performed for them” (Judges 16:25). How humiliating! But Samson saw his opportunity. He prayed,

Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.  –Judges 16:28

Even here, weakened and humiliated, Samson didn’t honor God with his request. Instead, he sought revenge, even though it meant his own death. Samson’s lust led to his death.

Herodias hated John for telling the truth about her marriage to Herod. She talked Herod into arresting John and putting him in prison (Mark 6:17-20). On Herod’s birthday, he threw himself a big party. Salome, Herodias’ daughter, danced for her step-father and his guests. Matthew explains:

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.  –Matthew 14:6-10

His judgment was clouded by lust (for his wife’s daughter!!) and probably alcohol, but Herod had to fulfill his oath. John died because of Herod’s lust.

Samson lived a reckless
life solely for himself.
John lived a weird life,
but he focused on Jesus.

Samson lived a reckless, sinful life, taking advantage of God’s gifts and grabbing as much attention as he could for himself. Yes, God used Samson to destroy Israel’s enemies, but He could have been so much more, had he gotten beyond himself—his pain, his resentment, his selfishness—to focus his life on God’s glory. Instead, he remained vengeful and proud, and he died in that vengeance.

John lived an unusual (to our eyes), single-minded life pointing others to Jesus. “Look,” John said, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He died for speaking Truth to power.

09-01 lunch - Ju's drink 1
Random photo of me at an outdoor cafe with a juice drink. It was a long time ago… (c) Carole Sparks

We’re all born into situations for which we never asked. Some are negative: hereditary diseases, legacies of substance abuse, racism. We struggle to rise above those. Others are seemingly positive: preachers’ kids, high educational standards, parents in demanding occupations. We may rebel against those for a time (some do it for a lifetime). Both Samson and John the Baptist received their Nazarite vows before they were born, but they “grew into” those vows very differently. This comparison makes me question how I accept and use my heredity, call it my received legacy (the good and the bad), for God’s glory.

Or maybe we need to talk about what we’ve claimed for ourselves. We say we’ve dedicated our lives to Jesus, but how’s that playing out in our attitudes and actions? Which kind of Nazarite will I be? Which kind of Nazarite will you be?

I imagine Samson walking into the juice bar with lots of tattoos, his seven braids like dreadlocks, his massive bulk filling the room. What kind of drink would he order?

I imagine John walking in right behind him, his long hair and beard studded with twigs, his camel hair vest drawing a few eyes, an intense look on his face. They don’t serve locust protein powder yet (that’s a thing—Google it!), so what would he order?

Two Nazarites walked into a juice bar—one struggling against his identity and one embracing it. What can we learn from their lives? My #dedication is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Congratulations on making it all the way through this long post! Use the comment section below to let me know your thoughts on Nazarites in general, these two guys in particular, their comparison, or what you think they’d order in the juice bar. I love hearing from my readers!

For a great summary of these lives (plus Samuel) and an interesting comparison of them to Jesus, check out Vanessa’s recent post.

One Man’s Very Real Sabbath Restoration

When Jesus “riled up” the Pharisees by having His disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, He demonstrated to them—and us—that the Sabbath was created to serve us, not us to serve the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). He modeled the fact that we can and should take care of our own needs on rest days. In the second of Matthew’s examples, we’ll see that we can also meet the needs of others. Continue reading